You might not have known it before clicking on this article, but today is Intersex Remembrance Day. First celebrated in 2005, this day represents a chance for society to acknowledge and reflect upon the issues faced by intersex people, individuals who possess sex traits and reproductive anatomy that vary from binary sex definitions.
A global community, experts estimate that intersex people make up about 1.7% of the world population – roughly equivalent to the percentage of people born with red hair. However, they remain misunderstood by society with many young intersex people experiencing non-consensual or coerced surgery.
Want to know how to better support the intersex community? As she announces a new podcast exploring intersex history and culture, artist, activist and writer Dani Coyle (she/they) speaks to Cosmopolitan about their experience and the ways you can begin your journey of allyship: this Intersex Remembrance Day and beyond.
Dani’s intersex journey
Dani shares their experience of discovering their intersex identity at 14 and coming out ten years later at 24.
“I found out that my body was intersex before anyone else did: when I hit puberty, it went through changes that were unexpected for a cis female body. I didn’t have the vocabulary around intersex, but I knew something was different. When I told my parents, there was a lot of confusion and surprise – and afterwards I went to the GP and then a specialist, who were both as equally confused to begin with.
There were lots of intersex variations being thrown around by doctors until they finally landed on 17 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase three deficiency. Everything happened quickly from there and I had two surgeries, one internal and one external. Afterwards, I turned down counselling and hoped that I would never have to think about or talk about [being intersex] again. I came out ten years later when I was 24, after a decade of secrecy, shame and stigma and trying really hard to pass [as a cis woman].
When I came out, I had moved to Berlin and met a really incredible mix of queer people, activists, artists, trans people and other intersex people. I felt like I had two options: either to live a lie and not let anyone I care about get to know me properly, or to come out. After making that decision and being open about my identity, things have gotten a lot better. I’ve created work around being intersex, found a lot of friends and made a community.”
8 ways you can be an intersex ally today
Dani’s initial understanding of being intersex was marked by secrecy and confusion, she explains what needs to change for the next generation of intersex people.
1. Break the taboo around bodies
“People are so uncomfortable with their own bodies that they find it really difficult to talk about other people's genitals, sexualities and bodies. They need to start looking inwards before they can start looking outwards. And on the largest scale, the reason why [non-intersex] people are so uncomfortable about intersex bodies and issues is because we fundamentally disprove that sex is binary.”
2. Stop pathologizing intersex people
“From a medical perspective, intersex bodies are pathologized and [treated as if] they need fixing. This reinforces the sex binary by basically saying that there is a clearly defined and natural “male” and “female” and that anything other than that is a disorder. What intersex activists are trying to say is, ‘Of course there is male and female, but bodies varying from that don’t have a disorder.’”
3. Treat intersex people as individuals, not generalisations
“On an interpersonal level, educate yourself on what intersex means and how it affects different people. Intersex is an umbrella term that encompasses a host of different variations, there is no one way to embody it. When it comes to pronouns, intersex people can use she/ her, they/ them, he/ him, and any combination of those and many more. They can be heterosexual, homosexual, demisexual, any sexuality.”
4. Push for more representation, at every level
“At a local level, having intersex people within the care system and hospitals would have made all the difference. Whether this came from a place of ignorance or laziness, doctors told me; ‘This is a really rare condition. There aren’t enough people in the UK to create support groups or put you in contact with anyone.’ So to have seen somebody like myself now, online or in the media, when I was 14 would have just put my mind at ease.”
5. Know that some “jokes” aren’t funny
“When it comes to everyday, small things you can do, stop making transphobic or interphobic jokes or jokes about bodies, genitals and other people's voices. There’s a lot of overlap between transphobia and interphobia, I’ve experienced transphobic harassment because people didn't have the understanding of what it is to be intersex.”
6. Queer solidarity with the intersex community
“Some intersex people don't feel like they align with the queer community and others don't feel like we should be aligned. Personally, my intersex experience has been inherently queer so, to me, it’s heartbreaking when we're not included by the queer community. We turn up to Trans Pride and we turn up to Gay Pride – when there’s barely any intersex awareness it's just kind of demoralising. Often new legislation affecting trans and non-binary people will also affect intersex people, but we are explicitly left out [from the conversation] and that adds to our erasure. Unless you're directly including us, you're part of the problem.”
7. Uplift intersex people all year round
“Sometimes people, magazines and companies only want to talk about intersex issues on intersex awareness days. I'm not asking someone to read an intersex book a week but if an intersex person reaches out for support and it doesn’t fall on an awareness day, it would be amazing if you could give that to them.”
8. Support the fight to end non-consensual intersex surgery
“Something that everybody can be horrified by is non-consensual intersex genital surgery. It’s a form of genital mutilation and a human rights violation which happens to babies and young people. All the intersex community is asking for is that people be of an age where they can provide explicit informed consent before having the surgery done. That doesn't mean being 13 and being asked; ‘Do you want to fit in? Do you want the surgery?’ Of course they're going to say ‘yes’, because their parents are in the room and they just want to be ‘normal’. We want to make sure individuals have enough time to explore different ways of living outside of compulsory cis-heterosexuality and are given the chance to explore their bodies and identities without the pressure to change.”
You can learn more about the Intersex Justice Project's campaign to #EndIntersexSurgery here.
Intersex people you should follow now
Recognising the importance of intersex role models and visibility, Dani runs through the intersex icons you should check out on Instagram.
“As an extension of my photography project Inter_face, which features portraits of the intersex community, I am creating a new podcast series called Inter_view, which focuses on recording intersex history and experience. Historically, intersex narratives have been stolen by parents, doctors and surgeons and this project is aiming to give that autonomy back to us. Through it, I’ve also been able to chat with different amazing people.”
Desiree (she/her) is a DJ from South Africa who calls herself the “Intersexy African Interpreter of Techno” and has been vocal about her identity as an intersex, heterosexual woman.
River (they/them) is an actor, filmmaker and artist whose short Ponyboi made history as the film featuring an intersex character played by an openly intersex actor.
Hanne (they/she) is a Belgian activist and supermodel who publicly came out as intersex in 2017.
Sean (he/him) is an intersex activist, visual artist and co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project.
You can discover more members of the intersex community by scrolling through Dani’s Instagram guide of intersex creators.
Dani’s podcast Inter_view features interviews with the likes of River Gallo, Desiree, Sean Saifa Wall and Hanne Gaby Odiele and will be released in the coming months. Check out the teaser episodes here.
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